A Machine Music Manifesto

Thomas Park
July 2017

A Visual Language of Machines, music by Grid Resistor, Photography Randee Silv


Earlier in 2017 I brought up some ideas for a “New Industrial Music“. A main component of this music involved using field recordings made of urban locations as sources. Rather than guitars and drum machines, actual recordings of the city were to be the source of sound. This idea has been further developed into a notion of ‘Machine Music”. Recordings of machines can be used as source material for this kind of composition, and the use of machines found in an urban setting makes Machine Music both its own variety and an extension of the New Industrial category.

I have made this observation, and my wife recently mentioned this of her own accord, that music on the radio follows certain formulae. She noticed that there were similarities between songs that went deeper than style, and got into using singers whose voices closely resembled one another, or the same technologies and instruments creating the same sounds (such as a use of “autotune”, which forces sounds, and especially vocals, to comply to a specific pitch). In a certain way, the mainstream music business is itself mechanical—methods and designs are used quite abstractly to generate products, much in the same way that factory machines do. Why not, then, simply express what is essential and make a music of machines?

Many forms of music already use or involve machines. Instruments are or resemble machines, as do devices used to record, including microphones and mixing decks, computers, and so forth. We master our sounds using software, on a computer. Files are burned to disc, or distributed online, passed from one machine to another and eventually to a mobile device or stereo.

Machine sounds themselves can be found in some music, especially in industrial music. A band might mix in a recording of factory equipment, or use power drills or similar devices as sonic sources, whether live on in the studio (such as the band Einsteurzende Neubauten). The machines create a supplemental voice in the mix, or are used as one or a few elements. I would propose that machines should become the dominant, or perhaps the only, sound source in a new type of music. How often do we need to hear a guitar, flute, or bongo? Why not explore and convey a new set of sounds made by mechanical devices?

Machines can make interesting and often rich sounds. A normal microphone can pick them up, but even better is a contact microphone. A contact mic is a small disc that is attached to a surface. It picks up the vibrations running through the surface, passing along the sounds manifested in its target. Contact mics are great for recording the various sounds that machines make as they turn on or off and run through their many cycles.

An excellent example of a machine as audio source is a washing machine. A washing machine produces literally dozens of sounds, as it moves from cycle to cycle. Each part of the washing process has its own sound, from the percolating sound of water filling the tank to various speeds of grind as the clothes are spun about. These sounds can be captured and further processed using audio software—excellent methods are to try various forms of granulation, or to add distortion or reverberation effects.

Composing using machine sounds can be as simple or as complex as needed. Many machine sounds are variations of noise (or noisy drones), and therefore they do not need to be tuned, and can be mixed together and layered freely. Occasional machine sounds have a pitch, which can be used as a source of tonality, or adjusted to match any other pitches using basic audio software.

What is the effect of such compositions? This may vary, but generally by using machine sounds, though some amount of noise exists within the pieces, it is quite easy to create a regular, repetitive, precise and meticulous kind of music. I would generally call these kinds of pieces “soundscapes”, as they are ambient drone collages of sound. The sounds in the pieces seem to come from the same sonic family, and indeed they do, having been recorded from similar sources. This effect is heightened if the same recording method is used throughout (for example, the same contact microphone, recording at the same fidelity). It is the case that machines provide their very own new category of instrumentation, and can harnessed to craft music with a very distinct aesthetic.

I hope that readers will consider furthering the New Industrial idea and developing a music of machines. It is a more honest approach to music, I feel, than regarding contemporary mainstream music as being anything other than mechanical itself. If a music is essentially of a machine, why not make it to sound that way? Machine Music provides a direct and authentic aesthetic of pragmatic, exact, and repetitive sounds, without using classical instruments or the human voice. Machine Music paves a clear path ahead in the world of music, and it is a good time to establish and explore this path.

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